Doctor Who: The Mutants
(6 episodes, s09e15-e20, 1972)
This is one dense story with a lot to unpack. Unlike a parcel where you can cut the tape, root through all the packing peanut filler, and find the gem at the bottom, everything in this box feels important.
The Doctor gets an assignment from the Time Lords, and he’s oddly excited about it. Yes, it means that he gets to travel somewhere in the (pre-programmed) TARDIS, but isn’t he still being a puppet? This assignment makes the Doctor a courier with a message coded to one person, and the Jo accompanies him as they dematerialize for a broom closet in the future. This future contains three classes of beings: The Overlords who rule from the safety of the Skybase, the Solonians who live on the ruined planet Solos, and the mutants, Solonians who have transformed into a monster-form and are better known to the Overlords who hunt them as “mutts”.
The disparity between the classes is evident from the very beginning, right down to the separate (but equal) teleportation platforms for the delegates that are arriving for a conference. The Overlords, who hail from the empire of Earth, have decided that after exploiting and industrializing Solos to near death, it is better for the dying empire to graciously grant the Solonians their indepedence. This plan isn’t without its detractors, as the Marshal (the Skybase’s commander) is in favor of destroying the native Solonians (and whatever causes their mutations) and terraforming their world for the empire.
Before the conference, the Marshal discusses matters with a Solonian named Varan and offers him a token of appreciation that should be kept safe, which Varan bestows upon his son. Elsewhere, one of the Solonians transforms and is killed before the Doctor and Jo, who are then taken into custody. The conference itself goes swimmingly for all of a minute before the empire’s administrator delivers a condescending speech, prompting the Solonians start protesting for their freedom. As the Solonians grow more and more irritated, Varan’s son fiddles with the token and it goes off, killing the imperial administrator with a poison dart. Ky, the Solonian leader, runs from the guards, takes Jo hostage, and teleports down to the Solonian surface.
The downside to the planet’s surface, courtesy of the Marshal’s experiments, is the poisonous mists that dominate the day hours. Solonians are immune to those gas clouds, but humans cannot survive long. Knowing this, the Marshal uses the Doctor’s compassion for Jo to solicit the Time Lord’s help in exchange for stepping up the search for Jo and Ky. The Marshal also takes the opportunity to wrap up loose threads by killing Varan’s son with a poison dart and framing Ky for the administrator’s assassination. Varan escapes with the truth in hand, but the Marshal declares him a mutt and order his execution. Meanwhile, Ky saves Jo’s life by attacking a guard, stealing his mask, and escorting her to a nearby cave. Ky rocks Jo’s world by showing her how humans from Earth have turned into a swarm of devouring locusts that leave ruined worlds in their wake. Her expression betrays the culture shock as she realizes just how terrible her own people can be.
The Doctor attempts to open the message box, which he realized was meant for Ky when the Solonian rushed by earlier, using particle reversal. The Skybase’s lead scientist, Jaeger, realizes that the same technology could be used to clean up the planet’s atmosphere. This technique is better in Jaeger’s eyes than the previous option, which would use rockets to scrub the atmosphere at the cost of planetary genocide. Meanwhile, the Doctor exposes the Marshal’s deception with Varan to officer Stubbs, and the Marshal convinces officer Cotton to lie about Jo’s whereabouts. The hero and the villain are left at an empasse, but Cotton’s conscience forces him to comes clean after consulting with his roommate Stubbs.
Knowing that the Marshal is hiding the truth about Jo, the Doctor runs an experiment on particle reversal that deliberately blows the power grid so he can sneak down to Solos. Similarly, Stubbs helps Varan escape during the outage, and Varan captures the Doctor after mistaking him for an Overlord. Once on the surface, the Doctor disables Varan with his Vensuian Aikido skills and makes him promise as a warrior that he will take the Doctor to Ky. The Doctor and Varan find Ky in the caves after he and Jo were pushed deeper into the cave system by the mutants. The mutants are driven off, but Jo has moved further into the caves to a chamber filled with light. She collapses, but is rescued by a figure in a protective suit. Meanwhile, Ky opens the message box and finds a set of stone tablets with ancient writing on them, but the language is part of the culture destroyed by the Overlords.
Seemingly ignorant to their recent treachery, the Marshal sends Stubbs and Cotton to the surface after Varan and the Doctor. He leads the team, intending to deploy gas bombs in the caves and smoke out the Doctor. While searching for the Doctor, Stubbs and Cotton confirm the Marshal’s suspicions about their earlier actions, and he seals them in with explosives that collapse the cave entrances. The group is saved from the gas by the mysterious figure in the protective suit.
The man in the suit is Professor Sondergaard, an Overlord scientist long thought dead, who turned on them because of how the Overlords treated the Solonians. The professor and the Doctor stay behind in the caves to decipher the tablets, which turn out to be a Solonian calendar, as Stubbs, Cotton, Jo, and Ky make their way out of the mountain. The group of companions are ambushed by Varan’s warriors and taken hostage, and the Doctor and Sondergaard explore the radioactive chamber of lights, in which they find a large crystal.
The Marshal returns to the Skybase and gets word that an Earth Investigator is en route. Meanwhile, Varan’s group takes Jo’s group to the Skybase so they can destroy it, and the Doctor returns to the Skybase to analyze the crystal after theorizing that the mutations are actually a normal part of the Solonian lifecycle. The Marshal detects Varan’s intrusion and sends guards to intercept. The Solonian warriors are all killed, and the Marshal shoots Varan and the bulkhead, which breaches and sends Varan into space. Jo and her cohort escape the hull breach and are taken into custody, subject to execution by the Marshal, as Jaeger launches his rockets. Luckily, they malfunction and only poison the surface instead of ionizing the atmosphere. This leaves particle reversal as the only option, which forces the Marshal back to the planet to find the Doctor. The Doctor avoids the guards and teleports back up to the Skybase, but is ambushed by the Marshal. With Jo’s life at stake, the Doctor is pressed into helping Jaeger. Jo feigns illness and ambushes the guards, securing their freedom long enough to relay the situation to the incoming inspector’s ship, but Stubbs dies as the Marshal captures them once again.
On the surface, Sondergaard returns to the cave and is rescued from one of the guards by the mutants. The professor explains the genetic discovery, and the mutants agree to help find the Doctor. On the Skybase, the Doctor begins the particle reversal on the planet, which undoes the damage from the rockets, but the Marshal uses Jo as collateral as a threat to finish the job. Just then, the investigator arrives, and Jo is taken to the other hostages (Cotton and Ky) in the refueling room, which will become radioactive when the ship begins refueling. They narrowly escape through the refueling boom as the investigator conducts an inquiry of the Marshal’s actions.
When Jo, Ky, and Cotton arrive, the tables turn as the Doctor tricks the Marshal into exposing his bigotry. Sondergaard arrives to testify as a mutant beams up to the station. The mutant’s presence prompts the Investigator to release the guards and fight the intruders, and the Doctor takes advantage of the chaos to analyze the crystal. The Marshal confines Jo, Sondergaard, Cotton, and Ky to the refueling chamber, but Sondergaard uses the crystal and the radiation to accelerate Ky’s evolution. Ky ascends to a higher form, then makes his way through the station to the laboratory just as the particle reversal machine overloads and explodes. Ky kills the Marshal, thanks the Doctor, and leaves.
In the aftermath, Sondergaard and Cotton remain to study the Solonians, and Cotton gets promoted to station commander. The Doctor and Jo make excuses and depart for the TARDIS, prompting another “doctor who” groaner as the credits roll.
I summarized (yes, summarized) all of that just to make sense of it. As the TARDIS vwooorp-ed away, I had to sit back and really think about what I had just watched over the previous three hours. For me, it was almost like I was back to analyzing Farscape again because on the surface, this is a typical good guy/bad guy monster tale, and that surface story has a twist with the monsters not serving the villain’s agenda. But there was more. It called to me. I knew that I had to look deeper.
This was a very dense story, and I loved pretty much all of it. There was plenty of action and intrigue – again, the frosting on the surface – but it also had delicious thematic layers that made it one of the most on-point stories I have seen so far with allegories about racism, segregation, environmentalism, over-industrialization, corruption, tyranny, economics, politics, and probably a handful of other topics that I still haven’t figured out, and all it is wrapped up in a neat presentation with a bow on top.
Quite honestly, it was like a handful of classic Star Trek episodes turned up to eleven, but it wasn’t messy or tangled. I settled on a mid-range 4 rating, and you know what happens with that when I add a drop of my patent-pending optimism.
Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Time Monster
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.